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By Ashley Cooper | May 4, 2004

Third party candidates in America are a bit of an oxymoron. To date the only significant role they have played is spoiling the reelection for George Bush in 1992 and Al Gore’s election in 2000. Okay, you can also throw in Jesse Ventura’s stint as Governor of Minnesota. But, besides these examples, third party candidates are basically a joke and the whipping boy of the Republican and Democratic parties.

Those of us born in America are used to this system. It makes things very easy. Things are black or white, good or bad, and Republican or Democrat. It takes an outsider like director Srikant Chellappa to ask if this is such a good idea. Indian by birth but now living in America, Chellappa explains that he grew up, “. . . where there was a party for every flavor of ice cream you could buy at Baskin-Robbins.” Intrigued by how the world’s largest democracy could only have two political parties, he documents the attempts of Libertarian candidate, Dan Byington, to unseat the incumbent U.S. Congressman, Dick Gephardt. Good luck, Dan, you’re going to need it.

From the start it’s obvious Byington’s self-financed campaign is going nowhere. He throws a backyard cookout to try to attract volunteers and collects a smorgasbord of good ol’ boys more interested in drinking his beer and speaking their own minds than working for his election. Eventually, Byington scrapes together a crew of a campaign manager and a treasurer, who happens to be director Chellappa’s girlfriend. The problem is the manager is often out of town and ends up also working for other candidates. Things might be different if he had the money the Kennedys used to have, but as Byington is a struggling filmmaker, this is definitely not an option.

In an effort to show what the Libertarian hopeful is up against, this film also focuses on the campaigns of Republican and Democratic candidates who similarly lack any funding. Yep, money is the name of the game and no one stands a chance next to the six million dollars that Gephardt raises. You’d think it would be funny to see these guys spray painting their own signs, handing out their own flyers, and driving all around town in a ludicrous effort to win the election. After all, this movie does refer to itself as a satire. But, it isn’t funny. Try depressing instead.

What then is the message of “Running Against Dick”? There are many, and none of them are very uplifting. The first would have to be that beating a well-funded incumbent for a major office, like Congress, is impossible without a ton of money. Chellappa throws a lot of stats to show this, but suffice it to say that without a couple of million dollars you may be running, but you’re not in the running. Another point made in this film is that even with money the odds are still stacked against third party candidates. The director interviewed countless voters asking them whom they would vote for in the coming elections. They all answered they would vote for the party they’ve supported all their lives. Why do they vote for that party? Almost always the answer was because this was the party the voter’s parents had voted for. The final message of the film relates to the flexibility of politicians. Though not said outright, the director suggests that a savvy politician bends his or her positions to suit demographics and political action committees. Such tactics lead to money and votes, if not integrity.

This documentary is not perfectly organized. Then again, neither are any of the candidates running against Gephardt, so it fits in a way. Regardless, “Running Against Dick” shows how ugly American politics can be. Sometimes it takes a view from outside to see how whacked things are inside. Still, politics are a necessary evil. But, maybe we’re ready for a new flavor of evil.

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